Advertisement
  1. News
  2. /
  3. Business

Pressure builds as Florida advocates call for utility, housing relief

More than a dozen environmental and housing advocacy groups called for relief for vulnerable groups of Floridians.
Housing and environmental advocates urged Gov. Ron DeSantis in a letter Friday to step up housing and utility protections for vulnerable groups of Floridians. Pictured is DeSantis Sept. 25.
Housing and environmental advocates urged Gov. Ron DeSantis in a letter Friday to step up housing and utility protections for vulnerable groups of Floridians. Pictured is DeSantis Sept. 25. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]
Published Sep. 28, 2020

A group of advocates is calling for action to stop electricity disconnects during the pandemic.

Connected in Crisis Coalition and the Florida Housing Justice Alliance urged Gov. Ron DeSantis in a letter Friday to step up housing and utility protections for vulnerable groups of Floridians.

“The working poor, Black Floridians and immigrant communities are disproportionately at risk,” the groups said in a release. “Housing and utility security for the most marginalized Floridians is not only a moral imperative, but critical to the health, safety and economic well being of our entire state.”

The coalition is comprised of 13 nonprofit and advocacy groups such as the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, Vote Solar, The CLEO Institute and Earthjustice.

The letter urges DeSantis to institute a moratorium on utility disconnections, fees and fines through June 1, 2021, and to extend mortgage and eviction relief through the end of the year. It also requests DeSantis “allocate direct financial assistance for rent, mortgages and utilities.”

Florida’s current moratorium on evictions and foreclosures is set to expire Oct. 1 after a series of extensions since it was enacted in April. This extension was limited to renters and single-family homeowners affected by the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced an order banning evictions for many tenants who sign a specific declaration form through the end of the year, which at least one landlord is challenging in court.

Friday’s correspondence is the second such letter the coalition sent to DeSantis during the pandemic. It comes as pressure mounts on Florida’s power companies to keep customers connected during the pandemic.

Related: Florida power companies face legal challenge on disconnections during pandemic

Three of Florida’s investor-owned utilities — Duke Energy Florida, Tampa Electric Co. and Florida Power & Light — announced plans to resume shutting off customers' power if they are unable to pay their bills. All offer payment plans. Gulf Power Co., which shares a parent company with Florida Power & Light, has not announced a date for resuming shutoffs.

Neither DeSantis nor the Florida Public Service Commission has implemented protections for Floridians facing shutoffs if they can’t afford their bills. Instead, utilities are left to decide when to resume shutoffs and whether to offer payment plans.

Power companies argue that the unpaid bills hurt their bottom lines. Roughly 1.25 million Floridians have fallen behind on their bills during the pandemic, according to regulatory filings. And Gulf Power is pursuing a process that would allow them to charge all customers for costs incurred during the pandemic, which includes unpaid customer bills.

But other states are going further on protections. In August, 21 states implemented a shutoff moratorium during the pandemic, including states with similarly large populations such as California and Texas.

“Many of our customers are facing unprecedented adversity during this pandemic,” Duke Energy spokeswoman Ana Gibbs said in a statement. “We want to be thoughtful and provide extended payment options to avoid power interruptions during the pandemic.”

Duke Energy, Gibbs said, disconnected 17 residential customers during the pandemic and “decided to pause residential disconnections until October.”

In a statement last week, Tampa Electric spokeswoman Cherie Jacobs said the company’s goal is “to not disconnect anyone’s service.”

“Tampa Electric is committed to keep doing the right thing for our customers,” she said.

For assistance with bills, Tampa Electric customers can visit tampaelectric.com/updates. Duke Energy customers can go to https://www.dukeenergyupdates.com/, and TECO Peoples Gas customers can visit peoplesgas.com/updates.

Last week, Earthjustice and the League of United Latin American Citizens filed an emergency petition with the Florida Public Utilities Commission asking for a moratorium on electricity shutoffs.

The commission' staff recommendation on the Earthjustice petition is expected Tuesday. Commissioners will discuss the issue at an Oct. 6 meeting.

• • •

Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage

HOW CORONAVIRUS IS SPREADING IN FLORIDA: Find the latest numbers for your county, city or zip code.

FACE MASKS: Read the latest on guidelines, tips for comfort and long-term wear

GET THE DAYSTARTER MORNING UPDATE: Sign up to receive the most up-to-date information.

THE CORONAVIRUS SCRAPBOOK: We collected your stories, pictures, songs, recipes, journals and more to show what life has been like during the pandemic.

A TRIBUTE TO THE FLORIDIANS TAKEN BY THE CORONAVIRUS: They were parents and retirees, police officer and doctors, imperfect but loved deeply.

HAVE A TIP?: Send us confidential news tips

We’re working hard to bring you the latest news on the coronavirus in Florida. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription.